The heat of day's sun waned and dulled inside the Western Air Temple.
"I'm glad this place is still here," Zuko said quietly, observing dusty blues and golds in the clouds above, dappled with the approaching sunset. His hands dangled between his knees. He was not bone-weary from the continuous hours of firebending training, only… slightly meditative. Uncle Iroh would be proud, Zuko thought with a smirk to his lips.
"It would have been a shame to have all this in ruins," he added, eyes still upwards. "There's so much history lingering here."
Aang glanced towards where Zuko sat faced away near the stone basin, and grinned appreciatively.
"Me too," Aang whispered back, shucking his top layers dampened with his sweat. At the rustling of clothing, Zuko peeked out of the corner of his good eye, watching the young monk bend down to splash some cold water on his face. For a skinny, flighty kid, he was pretty fit. Toned muscle and alabaster skin, almost as pale as the seashells Zuko found as a child on Ember Island's beach. For an airbender, Aang was pretty resilient, too. He knew when to stand his ground, to fight back and charge his enemies.
Zuko looked off in the distance once more, before lifting a hand to brush dark hair out of his face and glancing again at his companion. He knew it had been his curiosity outgrowing polite nature. He had seen children and men, his own soldiers, without their gear or attire. It was nothing unfamiliar or worth being embarrassed about, if discrete about the subject.
It might have not been becoming as a crowned prince, but Zuko supposed he didn't need to worry about senseless propriety anymore.
Off in the background, and somewhere deep within the upside-down spires, the Avatar's friends called laughing to each other.
Aang shifted and turned away, head raised and appearing to listen in. A shock of chill pierced Zuko's spine, quicker than his lightning. On the very center of Aang's lean back was twisted vines of burns and scarred, purpled skin. He didn't even catch himself staring so openly before Aang tilted his head at Zuko, frowning in concern.
"My sister did that to you, didn't she…" Zuko's voice came out rasping, oddly small. "How… could you even think of letting me join your group?"
Gray eyes widened in slow, horrified realization, and Aang's hand rose up, sluggishly tracing his own back. Aang tensed his jaw, like he wished to say something difficult in return, but he chose to silently reach and grasp for the bright orange cloth of his torn, woven robe. Mopping his dripping face off.
"You're not your family, Zuko. That's what you've been trying to prove." Aang's smile was perfunctory. Dry. "Everyone else will see it, too. Give them time."
Zuko' yellow-golden eyes squinted, as he asked curtly, examining Aang's profile. "And what do you see?"
The young monk scratched absently at the tattooed nape of his neck, features softening.
"I guess… my teacher." Reassurance so suddenly flooded him, warming him deeper than flame-light. Zuko climbed to his feet, reveling in the wondrous feeling. He folded his arms expectantly. "A friend," Aang said musing, and peering at the older boy with a sly glance. "… Hopefully still a good friend when the Fire Lord has been defeated."
Zuko nodded, stepping forward and leaving enough space between them for air. He almost congratulated the other boy for not dodging and evading.
"M'looking forward to that," he said, pointedly. Aang's face lit up at the good-humored teasing, color blushing the seashells. Before Zuko could imagine what could happen next in this pleasant atmosphere, he flinched up instinctively when something tiny and fuzzy landed on top of his head, noisily chirping.
"A butterfly canary!" Aang crowed out, grabbing Zuko's shoulders and forcing him to incline. "Whoa, I haven't seen one in a hundred years! It's red and green, that's amazing!"
Zuko's face wrinkled in confusion and mild discomfort. There was something living on his head. It better not be making a nest.
"A— what?" he grumbled, very thankful when Aang's hands scooped it out— Whoa.
At first glance, it looked exactly like a bird. Not as large as a hawk or iguana parrot, but it was certainly nothing Zuko had ever seen. The non-feathered wings and even the elongated beak were almost transparent. Patterned with swirls of pink, red, and a shimmery, flaky green for the creature's body. He wasn't sure what kind of animal coat it had.
"This little guy must've heard us talking," Aang spoke up, laughing when the butterfly canary nudged his fingers and agreed with a hearty chirp. "They're drawn to human voices."
Zuko stretched out his forefinger to poke it. "Like the badger toads."
The winged creature took off midair, purposely avoiding Zuko's massive-looking finger. He sighed to himself. Figures.
One of Aang's hands drifted back to Zuko's shoulder, gripping loosely. Zuko's heart was becoming louder and louder in its rhythm—angrier than a war-drum. "I never thought I'd say this… but I'm glad you're here, Zuko," Aang said, quietly.
Zuko swallowed, eyes still upwards. Anywhere but those emotive, gray eyes on him.
"Me too," he whispered back, and cleared his throat, ignoring the outwardly disappointed expression when Zuko forced himself a step back, face hardening. They weren't—this was an innocent kid. It didn't matter how safe or relaxed he felt around Aang. Or how genuinely happy. It didn't matter what he felt so strongly building.
Even if Aang… felt it, as well.
Early morning firebending lessons were skipped. Guilty by the master and the student.
Zuko thought the following morning would provide better clarity on what to do—it didn't, naturally. His moodiness at breakfast had managed to earn him scoffing looks from Katara and prying questions from Sokka and not-so-gentle punches on the arm to "cheer up, Fire-Boy" from Toph while the others snickered and cackled to themselves.
The free-flowing water basin seemed like a good place to leave everyone behind. Brood some more.
Not that he brooded idly, Zuko reasoned in his own head. With frustration, he knocked a stick he had picked up earlier against his knees. He didn't brood. "Hi theeere!" An upside-down Aang said cheerfully, swinging in front of his face. Zuko jumped wildly in place, dropping the oversized stick and thrusting an arm out, preparing to firebend.
He yelled, eyebrows pinched, "Don't—do that!"
"I didn't mean to scare you!" Aang said breathless, cross-eyed from staring at Zuko's smoking palm inches from his face. "I promise!"
"I—augh, I WASN'T scared!" Zuko huffed, giving the other boy a defensive sneer as Aang righted himself, clutching still to the hanging rope. "Where were you this morning, anyway?"
A toothy, boyish smile.
"Didja miss me, Sif Hotman?" Aang said coaxing, grabbing Zuko's collar and tugging repeatedly. "I found something, c'mon!" he shouted, letting go and quickly scaling the rope leading up the cliff edge. Despite himself, Zuko made a dramatic show of rolling his eyes, grinding his fingertips hard against his facial scar and chasing after him.
It didn't take long to track the Avatar into denser forestland; then again, Zuko had experience. The afternoon sun beat down relentlessly, and the plants smelled fragrant.
"… Oh," Zuko uttered, gazing awestruck at the treetops when he stopped walking.
Butterfly canaries. So many that he stood no chance in accurately guessing.
"Good, there you are!" Aang waved him over. A set of triplet canaries perched in a row on his left arm, a very bright green. "I named this one Bao, this one Rui, and this one Fai." He beamed. "You should name one, Zuko! They're really friendly." The other boy stared, frowning suspiciously at the colony gathering clamorous in the trees and then frowning at Aang.
"They're not exactly pets…"
"It doesn't mean they don't have a name," Aang corrected him mindfully. No irritation to it.
Zuko shook his head at him, giving an amused snort. Not to be deterred from his last, though failed, attempt, he curled out a finger to stroke the head of the nearest butterfly canary on Aang's arm. It tweeted at Zuko's finger, puffing up its… feathers? scales?… and he glared back, unimpressed.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," Zuko muttered down at it. The lovely creature remained where it was for several moments for the barest touch before fluttering away, its siblings joining. In fact, the rest of its brethren started shrilly chirping and tweeting, as if agitated. Both boys looked upwards, faces towards the sunlight, alarmed.
And then, it seemed that chaos was unleashed.
Zuko ducked one of the butterfly canaries lunging at him, and then another from the opposite direction screeching high-pitched. "—! What's happening—?"
"I don't know!" Aang then shouted at the firebender summoning his raw power as twin flame-daggers, beginning to jab them warningly at the swooping creatures, "Zuko, don't hurt them—aah!" He cried out in pain, not being able to shield himself without bending as more than one butterfly canary flew at him, talons whipping out.
"—ghh—Aang!" This was getting serious. The animals were not relenting on their instinctual swarm, only getting more agitated by their human voices. Zuko witnessed Aang use bursts of his airbending, enough to bat them away without harming them, but it proving ineffective as they kept coming. "Aang, I think you're making it worse!"
Blood trickled heavy down Aang's cheek.
Unwilling to allow this to escalate further, Zuko charged towards the other boy, yanking a panting Aang into a clumsy, bodily hug and using himself as a shield.
A surge of all-consuming fire roared around them, barring out the invasion, safely and tightly enclosing.
"Are you alright?"
Zuko's thumb smudged the wet, red smear across Aang's cheek. And he hated it—loved when Aang's warm, thin fingers trapped around his own.
The other boy gulped, visibly shaken even as the butterfly canaries disappeared, and inhaled sharply against Zuko's neck. His opening mouth hovering under Zuko's chin.
"Told you I was glad," Aang murmured, dazedly.
He fought down the bitter and foolishly wanting emotion—to scatter kisses against Aang's brow-line with his lips, to crouch down and wipe the newly bleeding claw-marks. To help this boy. And maybe to help himself. To want something so pure and so good for him.
"Don't," Zuko muttered furiously, shoving the young monk out of his arms. Grimacing. "—just, don't."
Aang sent him a sullen, defeated look, like he understood.
"Zuko, it—I," he began, left with words unfinished as his companion dove back into the forestland.
The last of the evening campfires go out, their ashes cooling.
Zuko curls up in the darkness of his own spare room, closing his eyes and trying to pretend he couldn't hear light footsteps approaching. His ratty cot dipped with new weight deposited on it, as the airbender pulled himself up on it, arranging himself on an end. "If you don't want to talk to me," Aang breathed out, softly. "That's fair."
He cringed, spreading out on his back, not liking the accusation behind this conversation.
Zuko didn't jolt away when a comfortable presence floats over him, pressed to him, and Aang backed away nervously afterward, more spit than kiss.
"Why are you afraid of me?" he asked, sadly, and if Zuko's already broken heart could bear anymore damage, it would crumple to dust.
Zuko's voice floated in the darkness, too.
"S'not you," he said, lowly. "It's what I feel. About you. What I have for a while." Even if he couldn't see it, Aang was grinning stupidly from ear-to-ear.
"As a good friend?"
"Something like that," Zuko replied, groaning a little and sitting up as his welcomed guest shifted closer. Pinpricks of moon's glow to Aang's eyes.
"… I want you to be, Zuko," Aang told him, honest-hearted as he would ever be. "I want you here, with me. When the War is finally over."
He murmured Aang's name like reprimanding, clasping at him. Spanning one hand faintly to Aang's muscular, pale side.
They tousled on Zuko's cot, moving, creaking its frame and harshly breathing. All arching limbs, grappling before Aang was willingly held fast, raking shaking fingers into the messy, silken knots of Zuko's hair, and dragging his head down. Zuko plundered into Aang's mouth, his hand crawling under the waistband of Aang's trousers. Working him to fullness, skin firm and nothing but heat. They rocked in tandem, and then out of rhythm, less smoothly or gracefully than any martial arts or any amount of bending they've ever learned.
Moments now in passing seemed undoubted in their newness. They could learn this, hearts young, spirits ablaze.
Careful, soft touches exploring. He covered Aang's mouth, hand straining to keep his gasping muffled in the dark, secret room, their hips rubbing down together. And then when Aang's hands grabbed at Zuko's naked hips, hauling him back down to every thrust, Zuko covered his own mouth, not trusting himself.
The release felt crippling, sucked right from his lungs. He imagined going boneless, melting as liquid from existence. Hot lips dragged slack to his fingers as Aang's entire body went taut beneath him, living muscle and skin, whimpering loudly through clenching lips. Zuko moved his hands and palms across Aang's chest to the slow, slow unwinding.
He impatiently and drowsily strained an arm out for the rest of Zuko as the older boy got up and threw the lone, wool blanket over them.
"Hold your elephant horses," Zuko quipped, mocking a grumpy tone. Aang smiled pensively against his shoulder, face burying into musk and warmth. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Mmh, good," came the sleepy response.
ATLA and its rights are not mine. PURE, UNADULTERATED FLUFF. I'm a little rusty for this beloved fandom, but it's never gonna do. Nor my love for it and the fanfiction. This was a request (I should have gotten done ages ago) from Fireball-Fuchsia: "Zuko and Aang stuck in the temple. Aang's cuteness drives Zuko crazy with lust. Zuko and Aang have yummy naughty sex." I'm very sorry we had troubles with getting any prompt together, and thank you so so so much for your patience. I can only hope this was worth the wait for you. To my readers: Hope you enjoyed your reading stay. Comments/questions are always, always thanked and encouraged for encouraging the ficcer. I love hearing what you think!